Sitting in his truck in a parking lot, Danger Mouse watches lower-clearance vehicles get stuck in the flooded streets of Atlanta. It's the beginning of July, and aside from summer thunderstorms, tropical storm Cindy and hurricanes Dennis and Emily (such sweet-sounding names for rooftop-ripping and tree-shredding catastrophes) are making their way to the Gulf Coast. The craziness has just begun, and Danger Mouse is on the phone, trying to concentrate on the topic of music production as sirens go blaring by. “I may be distracted here or there, or there might be cars toppling over, but other than that, we're good,” he jokes.
A week later, Danger Mouse's latest collaborator, MF Doom, attempts to fly from the East Coast to meet his cohort in L.A., where Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) is mixing their album, Dangerdoom: The Mouse and the Mask (Epitaph, 2005). But the July 7, 2005, London bombings temporarily scare the often-elusive Doom (born Daniel Dumile) away from travel.
Fortunately, Dangerdoom provides a great escape from global turmoil. Based loosely on Adult Swim cartoons on Cartoon Network, Dangerdoom might sound frightening, but it's more of a laughfest. Adult Swim character Brak (from The Brak Show and Space Ghost: Coast to Coast) opens the album in his dim-witted kid voice saying, “Why did you buy this album? I don't know why you did. You're stupid.” In fact, you are not stupid, as the album (coming out in October) is a mix of melodic kitsch á la Esquivel, requisite fat hip-hop beats, Pink Floyd — esque breakdowns, funny phrases such as “cocaine and rogaine” and hilarious character voices.
Danger Mouse and MF Doom are great together, but they are also spoiled. They didn't have to ask for sample clearance to use the characters' voices on the album — because they didn't have to sample them. “I've been a fan of them for a long time, and they're fans of mine and Doom's,” Danger Mouse says. So the guys got all of the voice actors to do skits and special lines specifically for the album. Master Shake, Meatwad and Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force are present. So is Space Ghost, who disses MF Doom for trying to steal his thunder. “All the voices on there are authentic — the only one who didn't get on there was Frylock,” Doom laments.
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PLANS FOR DANGERDOOM
A couple of years ago, before the hype of Danger Mouse's The Grey Album (Cat & Mouse, 2004) — which remixed vocals from Jay-Z's Black Album (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam, 2003) with parts from The Beatles' self-titled release, commonly known as White Album (Capitol, 1968) — DM sat down with Doom to come up with a loose concept for Dangerdoom. “Every record that Doom does and every record that I do is a concept album,” Danger Mouse says.
With DM's connections to Adult Swim, the concept was easily agreed upon. “I'm a cartoonhead,” Doom says. “I've been a fan of cartoons ever since I was a shorty. When he brought it to my attention — like, ‘Yo, I know all these cats up at Adult Swim. Maybe we could do this record?’ — I was like, ‘Word!’ I was honored.”
Doom has his own share of production credits, including his album Operation: Doomsday (Fondle 'Em, 1999) and part of his latest collaboration with Madlib, Madvillain's Madvillainy (Stones Throw, 2004). And the reclusive artist has indeed paid his dues in hip-hop. Preceding his current character, Metal Face Doom, he was Zev Love X of the group KMD in the early '90s (before bandmate and brother DJ Subroc was killed in a car accident).
When Danger Mouse approached Doom to do the project, Doom thought it best to play to his strengths. “Sometimes when I produce a joint, it takes away from me,” Doom says. “So when Danger presented me with the option of doing this album, I said, ‘Okay, you do the beats.’ I approached it like the Madvillain album. Madlib rhymes sometimes; he do beats sometimes. But his beats are so ill that me as an MC, I have no choice but to cater to his beats and him cater to my rhymes. When a producer approaches me as an MC, it cuts out 50 percent of the work, and I concentrate strictly on rhyming and conceptualizing the album. All I had to do was come up with stupid rhymes, witty lines, and that's what I love to do anyway.”
A LITTLE BIT OF MYSTERY
Danger Mouse is a firm believer that techniques and ideas are what make for quality tracks, not gear. “I don't want anybody thinking you have to have any one thing when you can use anything and make it good,” he says. You've heard it before, but it's not DM's excuse to avoid revealing his studio setup to the biters out there. “When I was younger, I would hear, ‘So-and-so had this piece. If I just had this one piece of equipment, all my shit would be better,’” DM says. “I put off [projects] here and there so that I could save up and get this gear. I spent thousands of dollars on stuff still sitting here, and I don't even know how to use it. It's just retarded. So that's why I try not to go too into depth about the details of my setup. But I can definitely say it's cheap. It's not expensive equipment at all.”
However, Danger Mouse will say that a couple of his favorite keyboards of the moment are a Korg MS-2000 and a Roland Saturn 09. “Money Mark [who plays on Dangerdoom] has been getting me more into a lot of stuff keyboardwise,” he says. As for software, DM has used Digidesign Pro Tools and Apple Logic in other people's studios, but he prefers Sony Acid Pro at home. “I used to use old samplers and a lot of old drum machines and samplers, and then I made a switch years back,” DM says. “I basically use that program now in the same way I used those.”
Although DM buys a new PC every year, it's not to increase his processing power. “I use very basic PCs,” he says. “I don't have any special soundcards or anything. The reason I get a new one every year is because there always winds up being some fucked-up virus or some kind of crash, or something ends up broken on it, so I wind up getting a new one all the time.”
When work began on Dangerdoom, DM first provided Doom with a slew of tracks to choose from. What made it past the cutting-room floor inspired Doom and the guest vocalists to go beyond Adult Swim to reference some old-school cartoons — characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester, Judy Jetson and more. “[Dangerdoom] bridges the gap between then and now,” Doom says. “The cats that are watching cartoons now — like the Aqua Teen stuff, Sealab , Conan [Edogawa, from Case Closed], Lupin the 3rd — are the cats who grew up on Tom and Jerry.”
For anyone alive in the '70s, you might hear some trumpet samples on Dangerdoom and remember going grocery shopping with your mom in '78. There are violins and flutes and '60s-style spacey synths, vibes, trombones, Asian strings, Wurlitzer piano and every kind of sound that will take you back to the days when you were watching cartoons as a kid — or even to the days when your parents were.
“A lot of the stuff I gave Doom was very cartoony to me,” DM adds. “Even the Space Ghost song [“Space Ho's”] was kind of like a game show or a talk show.” For the cartoony kitsch factor, '50s and '60s lounge-music composer Esquivel was a perfect reference point. “I love him,” DM says. “I remember getting a record of his years ago when I was working at a record store. Nobody references Esquivel, usually.”
Like Esquivel (who did TV and film work), Danger Mouse likes to create music in a visual way. “I don't look to see what a sound sounds like; I see what it looks like,” he says. “I'm just a big film buff, so that's definitely where a majority of my inspiration comes from.” But a visual for DM might spark a totally different visual for Doom. “Mince Meat” has a '60s James Bond feel, but it took Doom back to the '60s and '70s series The Underdog Show. “‘Mince Meat’ has a catchphrase by Klondike Kat, ‘I'll make mincemeat out of that mouse!’ — that's Klondike Kat talking to Savoir Faire,” Doom says. Doom changed it to “I'll make mincemeat out of that beat mouse” to add a little jab intended for his fellow producer.
As for “Space Ho's,” that goes back to an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon hero from the '60s, Space Ghost. The character was resurrected in 1994 for Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, a cartoon talk show in which the sometimes-hungover host conducts bizarre interviews with the likes of Chuck D, “Weird Al” Yankovic, BjÖrk, Fran Drescher, Alice Cooper, Busta Rhymes and others. On “Space Ho's,” a shuffling beat and '60s lounge music back up Doom's pledge to take over Space Ghost's talk show, to which Space Ghost bites back sarcastically, “You think I'm just going to hand over my show to you, Doom? Have you lost your fucking mind? Yeah, sure, here are the keys to the show. Why don't you drive for a while?”
It's very funny, and it's also a way of asking new generations to respect the old school. “You've got cats that was there back in the day — KRS-One, Lord Finesse, Nas — who stood the test of time,” Doom says. “And then you have the little flash in the pan like, ‘Oh, this cat. I wonder whatever happened to this dude?’ It's the same thing with the cartoon world. Cats pop up and disappear. But there are the ones who stood the test of time, like Space Ghost, like the same way I do. I may change characters here and there, but I stick to the old-school formula humor. [Take] Tom and Jerry, for instance. They don't really even talk on there; it's just music and slapstick. So when you can just use those two and still make it come off, that says something.”
INTRICATE PUZZLE PIECES
Danger Mouse did some digging for the album's huge array of samples, including using some '60s Greek records that a friend gave him. But the music on Dangerdoom is more complex than just some slapped-together '60s and '70s samples. “I like really big musical-sounding things, like way, way crowded — just tons of music going on,” DM says. “I always like to jumble stuff in there.” Keyboardist Money Mark plays a few parts, and DM and a couple of other musicians play bass or guitar on certain sections. But many of the 40 to 50 tracks on each song are samples. “It's definitely a collage record,” DM says.
Although some people don't realize the talent and hard work that goes into making a sample collage, lots of different melodies must be woven together to somehow fit with Doom's busy raps. “It's a lot of trial and error,” DM says. “Mentally, sometimes I can't even start doing a beat if I have tons and tons of stuff that's really good to go through, because I'll start [with one sample], but I'll know that I have a bunch of other stuff that's good right in front of me, and everything sounds decent. Nothing sounds great to your head because you have all this stuff to work with.
“Melody is really the main thing,” he continues. “What ties it all together is taking the best melodies out of the music that you've got in front of you. It's finding as many parts in as many different ways to chop and pitch up and down. I do tons and tons of music, and I just try to only take the best stuff. And then I give that to Doom, and he takes the best stuff out of that. And, sometimes, I'll get the track back, and I'll think, ‘Oh, there could be more to it,’ so we add more.” But after a certain amount of samples are pieced together, adding live instruments can be a problem. “You manage to get two or three different samples to work together,” DM says. “And then adding live stuff to it and trying to tune instruments to the track, it gets even harder.”
While waiting for guest vocals from Ghostface Killah, Cee-Lo and Talib Kweli, Danger Mouse knew that his tracks could mutate more depending on what the other vocalists laid down. As of this writing, DM was waiting for a chorus vocal from Cee-Lo for “Benzi Box,” a track with a buzzy, gliding bass synth; a spooky and whistley synth melody; and “Chopsticks”-style piano — but no samples. “Once I get that,” DM says, “I'll know, ‘Do I need to add another countermelody based on that chorus that I need to have throughout the verse, as well?’ If [the vocal is] a different countermelody and it's a good melody, then I can actually apply that melody here and there and make the piano even lower or maybe bring it up and add another melody underneath it.”
The chopped-up vibraphone sample on “Basket Case” is a good example of how much work goes into rearranging melodies to fit. “I remember giving that beat to Doom, and it was presented in three ways,” DM says. “It was like, ‘Okay, the melody could be this, this or this.’ And at the end of the day, we wound up melding two or three of them together, and after he rhymed it, we went back [and said], ‘Okay, certain ones sound better on certain parts than others.’” But the rearrangement wasn't so much for DM to make the sample unrecognizable. “You're not really trying to hide stuff as much as you're trying to make it a little bit more interesting or do it in a way that whoever played it originally wasn't trying to or thinking of doing,” he says.
BACK AND FORTH
While MF Doom is doing his thing, including more collaborating with Ghostface Killah, Danger Mouse is flying around nonstop to work on projects. For example, the versatile producer worked on Gorillaz' most recent record, Demon Days (Virgin, 2005), which contains no samples except for a drum sound here and there. “The Gorillaz record is Damon Albarn's songwriting and performances,” DM says. “I used them as if they had been sampled, but they weren't. I was there during the construction of a lot of the sounds and melodies, so I had a lot more control of stuff like that. [Dangerdoom] was a lot different because it was really me in my own world. Doom is very much like me, where he works on his own, as well. So we'd meet up to do stuff here and there, but for the most part, he does his thing, and I do my thing. The Gorillaz record was a completely different way of working. Damon played me some of the demos, and we started to flesh them out, and then we completely redid some of the demos from scratch. And some of the songs were just done on the spot in the studio.”
Next, Danger Mouse has a project with Cee-Lo called Gnarls Barkley (www.gnarlsbarkley.com). “It doesn't sound like either of these two at all,” DM says. “It's this amazing soul voice over the top of some more double-timey stuff. I've lived in Atlanta for a long time, and I grew up on a lot of Miami bass stuff, as well, so definitely a lot more double-time and a lot more of what some people would associate with the South. It's still a very out-there, nice-sounding record, almost apocalyptic. It's very dark but still supersoulful and very personal for Cee-Lo — about life and death and the more screwed-up part of our personalities. We started it the same time I started the Doom record in 2003. The Grey Album definitely delayed a lot of stuff. None of this stuff came from that, really. This is all a continuation of what was going on before, but, luckily, it's given me enough time to get better musically.”
THE BEAT MOUSE'S BREAKS
Danger Mouse likes to keep some mystery alive regarding his projects and studio setup. But here are a few clues to his beat-making process.
Double up: “I'm kind of a fanatic about my drums and spend a lot of time on them,” DM says. “There's a specific way I do them almost every time, whether it's the Gorillaz record or anything, really. You want something to sound live without too much reverb or without all of them sounding the same on each track. There are no live-played drums on here, but I definitely double my kicks and snares up. I usually use more than one or two, even though it doesn't sound like it, necessarily.”
Crunchy, sandy snares on “Old School”: “That whole break was messed around with, and it makes it sound very much like a shaker,” DM says. “It's a way of making it sound rhythmically like there's no space in between any of the drums — and a way of hiding a lot of mess that was in the sample. If you just had a typical kick, hi-hat, snare, you'd have a lot of space in between; then, the sample would start to distract you. So on that one, there's no space. It makes [the snare] sound like it came from the same place as the samples and the drums — like one big recording.”
Really piling it on for “The Mask”: “That's a lot of crazy different drums,” DM says. “That's about four breaks in one — four parts of four different pieces. There's a kick that I got from somewhere, a drum roll, a snare … and then the pattern was just kind of one I put together. And you keep thinking it's going to actually break into something else a little bit easier to nod your head to, but it just kind of keeps the tension. It's as complicated as can be. It's probably my favorite beat on the record.”